Dear Joyce Flint

The body of serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer was cremated at the weekend - all bar his brain, which his mother wants preserved for medical research

Tom Wilkie
Monday 18 September 1995 23:02 BST

Could any mother come to terms with the events you have had to face? Your son was one of the world's most notorious sex murderers who admitted killing 17 young men and boys, some of whom he had had sex with and some he had eaten; he was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1992; he was beaten to death by another prisoner last November and now he has been cremated, but only from the neck down.

Perhaps it is as part of the process of coming to terms with your son's appalling biography that you are insisting that his brain be preserved "for medical research". It's certainly not what he wanted - his will requested that he be cremated - nor is it what his father, your ex-husband, wants: he, too, believes that Jeffrey's body should be consigned totally to the flames.

You must have asked yourself many times whether you, as the mother of this monster, had any responsibility for his actions. It is understandable in our modern secular age that you might seek absolution from science rather than religion. What a release it would be if the experts could peer into the circuitry of his brain, find the defect which made him commit these awful crimes, and tell you that the cause was not Freud but physiology.

You are acting in accordance with a long tradition. Genius, for good or ill, has several times been the pretext for such post-mortem indignity. Einstein's brain, we are told, was taken out for examination, but if secrets greater than the General Theory of Relativity were ever there, they have remained stubbornly inaccessible.

Phrenology was once considered science, although there the idea was that one could assess the strength of someone's intellectual and emotional faculties by the shape and size of the skull overlying the parts of the brain thought to be responsible for them. But the tradition does not go all the way back: the ancient Egyptians thought the brain an irrelevance to be sucked out of the skull through the nostril before a body was preserved for embalming.

It is, of course, nonsense to think that the physiology of the brain can reveal the mind. Nothing can be deduced from the study of a dead brain about the motivations and thoughts of the living person to whom it once belonged. Actually, very little can, as yet, be deduced from the study of a living brain.

It says something about the society in which you live that 17 young men and boys could just disappear into your son's refrigerator. Where were their parents, friends, employers, work-mates? Why were they not asking questions or, if they were, why were there no social threads to tie the victims to your son's behaviour?

For crime is not a medical condition that can be "cured" by taking a tablet. The key to this mystery and the means of preventing a recurrence are to be found in the way that people are connected to their fellows in the communities in which they live, not by examining the way the cells of Jeffrey's brain are connected to each other.


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